Calhoun, Lee Quency

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CALHOUN, Lee Quency

(b. 23 February 1933 in Laurel, Mississippi; d. 21 June 1989 in Erie, Pennsylvania), two-time Olympic gold medalist and world record holder in the high hurdles.

Calhoun was born in Laurel, Mississippi, a community that also produced fellow National Track and Field Hall of Famer Ralph Boston. Calhoun's father was Johnny Jordan. His mother, Erma McMillan, moved north when Calhoun was a toddler and, with his stepfather, the Reverend Cory Calhoun, raised Calhoun in Gary, Indiana. He eventually had fourteen siblings. After he graduated from Roosevelt High School, he attained a scholarship and subsequently enrolled at North Carolina Central University in the fall of 1951, where he was instructed by the Hall of Fame coach Dr. LeRoy Walker, who was later president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In 1953 Calhoun entered the U.S. Army for a two-year hitch. When he returned to college, he was more focused and a more complete, committed athlete. In 1956 he won the sixty-yard high hurdles at the New York Athletic Club Indoor and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Senior Indoor championships and the 120-yard high hurdles at the Outdoor National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and AAU championships. His win over the Olympians Jack Davis and Harrison Dillard at the AAU Indoor placed him for the first time in the international spotlight as a hurdler. In 1957, the year he earned a bachelor's degree, Calhoun repeated the same series of track championships. Before the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, Calhoun's personal best in the 110-yard high hurdles was 14.4 seconds, but at the Olympics he ran 13.5 to win the gold, just edging out his team-mate Jack Davis.

In the fall of 1953 Calhoun met Gwen Bannister, a freshman from Stamford, Connecticut, while they were students at North Carolina Central University. On 9 August 1957 his stepfather, the minister of the Evening Star Baptist Church in Gary, performed their marriage ceremony on the national television show Bride and Groom. Although the television producers did not know that Calhoun was a runner, the AAU claimed that he had capitalized on his fame as a runner to obtain the gifts given to the show's contestants. Calhoun was suspended from amateur athletics in 1958 for one year, and the AAU threatened to ban him from Olympic competition.

While he was on suspension, Calhoun and his wife worked for the city of Cleveland. In 1959 Calhoun met with Dan Ferris, head of the AAU, to ask that his suspension be lifted. The suspension finally was revoked when John Nagy, chairman of the Lake Erie AAU Association in Cleveland, threatened to withhold nearly $40,000 from the AAU. In 1957, 1959, and 1960 a series of thrilling meets between Calhoun and Hayes Jones at the Chicago Daily News Relays, the Cleveland and New York City Knights of Columbus, and elsewhere drew national attention. Calhoun was once again the AAU Outdoor high-hurdles champion in 1959. On 21 August 1960 he tied the world record in the 110-meter high hurdles in Bern, Switzerland, with a time of 13.2. Later that year, at the Rome Olympics, he won gold in the 110-meter high hurdles once more, with a time of 13.4. He was the first man to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in this event.

In 1965 Calhoun earned a master's degree from North Carolina Central University. Shortly thereafter he became the track coach at Grambling University (1967–1970), then at Yale (1971–1980), and finally at Western Illinois University (1980–1989). He was an attentive, committed coach and a role model for his athletes. He truly enjoyed his work, and his athletes frequently took on his persona. Calhoun was made a member of the Olympic Men's Track and Field Committee in 1969. He coached the 1968 and 1976 U.S. Olympic teams and America's 1979 Pan-American Games team.

By all reports Calhoun was a modest family man and an inspiration to his children, both of whom also were outstanding track athletes. Calhoun was named to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974), the Western Illinois University Athletic Hall of Fame (1989), the North Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (1991). A life-size bronze sculpture of him, Excellence on Winged Feet, was dedicated at Western Illinois University in 1993. Calhoun experienced a debilitating stroke in February 1989 and was moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, where his sisters could help with his care. He died there of stroke-related complications at age fifty-six. Following his death, the Lee Calhoun Memorial Invitational was instituted in 1989 at Western Illinois University and a scholastic meet in his honor was established at Durham, North Carolina.

The best source for the Bride and Groom television saga is Lewis H. Carlson and John J. Fogarty, Tales of Gold (1987). A helpful source is Hal Bateman, "National Track and Field Hall of Fame Grand Opening and Dedication Reception Booklet" (12 Jan. 1986), available through the Press Information Department, the Athletics Congress/USA. Information about Calhoun's track performances is in Gerald Lawson, World Record Breakers in Track and Field Athletics (1997) and the New York Times (12 and 19 Feb. 1956 and 17 and 24 Feb. 1957). See also the U.S. Olympic Association, 1960 United States Olympic Book (1961).

Keith McClellan